Monday, January 31, 2005

Election Day in Iraq: One Voter's Story

BAGHDAD – It is election day in Iraq. The mood is tense. Ground-shaking blasts can be felt and heard in nearby neighborhoods. Sporadic gunfire echoes through the alley’s of this ancient city. Today, I will be shadowing my trusted translator, Fadel Zeki, on a daring journey through the streets of Baghdad to his polling place where he will cast the first vote of his life. Despite the crying and pleading that we stay barricaded in his small apartment, I can sense that Fadel is genuinely excited to participate in this historic event in his county’s history.

After Fadel finished writing out a crude will, we strapped on our bullet-proof vests, stuffed as many revolvers as we could into our pockets, and began our journey to democracy. I pried Fadel’s hands off of the door frame and we exited into the dusty, noisy streets of Baghdad.

The polling place was roughly ten blocks from Fadel’s apartment. The air was pungent with the smells of burning rubber, gunpowder and unwashed humans. Wary eyes followed as we walked briskly past the shops and homes of this poor Baghdad neighborhood. It didn’t take long before we were challenged by three young men carrying AK-47s.

They asked if we were going to vote. A puddle darkened the sand around Fadel's feet, but the men did not seem to notice. Fadel told them that we were only going to the market to steal fruit and bread for his family. After some debate among the gunmen, which included one of the men dragging a thumb across his throat, they let us pass.

Fadel was so traumatized by the incident he lost his sense of direction and headed back toward his apartment. I insisted we turn around. He insisted I spend eternity in hell having jackals feed off of my genitals. But with much patience, and a fifty dollar bill, I persuaded Fadel to turn back toward our original destination.

Only two blocks from the polling place, we were again stopped by armed Iraqi citizens. This time, they were as interested in me as much as they were our purpose for being on the street. Fadel told them I was his second cousin on his mother’s side, from France. I thought this was quite clever on Fadel’s part until one of the men addressed me directly in French. My clothes became instantly sweat soaked, and all I could think to do was indicate in sign language that my tongue had been cut out. Oddly enough, such is the climate in Baghdad these days that they bought my story with little discussion, and we were allowed to pass on.

We finally reached the polling station, which was heavily guarded by American military personnel. Fadel entered after showing his papers, but when I produced my journalists credentials I was told to sit on a nearby bench where Iraqi’s who were voting had tied up their dogs, goats and various other animals. I spent the next half-hour fending off the amorous intentions of a three-legged mongrel, when Fadel finally returned from voting.

Excitedly, I asked him how it went and for whom he’d voted. He shrugged his shoulders and said he had no idea. He just picked “anonymous” or “other” in every category. But, he said, they gave out candy when he was done. I knew at that point that true democracy could be decades, perhaps centuries, away. It made one wonder about the whole business of invading a country that did not ask to be invaded. But now, after all was said and done, we had to consider far more immediate concerns, such as how to get back to Fadel’s apartment alive.

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